Machado’s performances stick out because he was brought to the Dodgers for this very moment, acquired in a mid-July trade with the Baltimore Orioles as a final piece of a World Series puzzle, a star shortstop whose postseason success could very well dictate his team’s.
“It’s awesome,” Machado said of finally being in the postseason with the team that traded for him with October in mind. “This is what we play for. This is what we always imagine. Going into every season, every ball club’s goal is to make it to the World Series. Obviously some ... it doesn’t happen as easy as it does for others, but I was fortunate to come to this ball club, try to help them whatever way I can.”
On the day before Game 1 of the NLDS, and only Machado’s second postseason appearance since 2012, the Orioles completed a drastic overhaul by dismissing Manager Buck Showalter and General Manager Dan Duquette. The Machado deal was the biggest piece of a mid-summer sell-off that turned the Orioles in a whole new direction. He was their franchise player, a perennial All Star in his mid-20s, one of the few reasons left for Orioles fans to attend games at Camden Yards. Then he was gone, traded for five prospects, an anticipated move that stung because it felt like the Orioles could have maybe still built a team around him.
And now, as the few remaining pillars of the franchise were stripped away after the season, Machado walked through the Dodger Stadium clubhouse this past Wednesday, a noticeable bounce in his step. He cut the sleeves off a hooded sweatshirt so his forearms would show. He sunk into a couch and wrung his hands around the handle of a light-brown bat. But he could not escape the idea that his presence mattered more than anyone else’s, as a reporter suggested that he was the player who needed to make it happen for the Dodgers this October.
“Why just me, though?” he asked, tilting his head to the side and spinning into an answer about how it all takes 25 players to win a game.
He had a point. The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 2017 and are much more than Machado. They are, on offense, also Max Muncy and Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger and so on. They are, on the mound, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu and Walker Buehler and even more. But there are added expectations when a player is swapped for a list of notable prospects despite an expiring contract, when he was the prize of the summer trade market, when he will be a free agent this winter and could add millions to his contract with a clutch hit or two. His average dipped a bit after the trade, but his power — he tied a career-high with 37 total home runs — has only elevated since he moved to Los Angeles. He is at the core of a lineup that has smacked six home runs in just two playoff games. He will need to hit even better, homers or not, as the Dodgers move deeper into fall and the competition stiffens.
Machado has to bear that, all of that, as long as the Dodgers' run goes. He has at least some control over that, too, and did not help the effort in Game 1 against the Braves. That was when he struck out twice and grounded into a double play, all while hitting fourth, and booted a groundball at shortstop at a meaningless point of a lopsided Dodgers win. Then he bounced back with that first-inning home run one night later, leaving his pointer finger in the air as he rounded first base, beating his chest and doing all sorts of motions until he ducked into the dugout for a round of handshakes and high-fives. The home run came on a 3-0 pitch, and Machado later noted that his decision to swing, against a pitcher he has had success against, was just him being a “baseball player.”
“I want him to swing right there,” said Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, trusting the star to buck an age-old convention and hunt for a pitch to hit. “And I was hoping he’d get a fastball that he could handle, and I trust that if it’s in the strike zone, then he could slug it.”
That is how it all unfolded, even if Anibal Sanchez threw a borderline strike that may not have caught the low-and-outside corner. Braves Manager Brian Snitker regretted not intentionally walking Machado once Sanchez threw three balls. Maybe he thought Machado wouldn’t swing at a down-and-away pitch. Maybe Sanchez thought that, too.
That is where unpredictability turns into a tool. It is hard to know what Machado may do next. And the Dodgers, the team that just needs him to do something, are more than willing to wait and see.